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France Moves One Step Closer to Criminalizing Full Muslim Veil

  • Henry Ridgwell

French lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to ban the public wearing of Muslim veils that cover the face. The lower house of parliament passed the bill last week by an overwhelming 335 votes for, to one against.

It still must be ratified by France's senate and faces other legal hurdles. Its supporters say the law upholds the secular nature of French society. But critics of the ban argue it could violate the French constitution and have vowed to take it to the European Court of Human Rights.

In a boutique in downtown Paris, French university student Mariam Belkhir browses through the latest fashions. Belhir, who enjoys the lifestyle of western Europe, is Muslim, but does not wear a veil. Nevertheless, she said no one should tell her or anyone else what they can or cannot wear.

"I think that each woman has the right to express her faith in her own way. I think there are lots of other more important problems the government needs to address in France."

In the southern city of Avignon, Kenza Drider has a stricter interpretation of Islam. She wears the face-covering vail, or niqab, out of choice. If the new law is ratified, she will face a $200 fine if she ventures out in public wearing it.

"I will never change my life for anything in this world. My niqab is my niqab, I will keep it," vowed Drider.

Official figures suggest fewer than 2,000 women in France wear the full Islamic veil. But the government claims it is contrary to the values of the French republic. And polls show the majority of French people support the ban.

Jacques Myard of the ruling UMP party, which backs the ban, says it does not unfairly target Muslims, but reinforces secularism established with the French revolution.

"This is something which is absolutely contrary to our history, to our traditions and to our principles," said Myard. "The principle of dignity for a person, and the principle of equality of the sexes. And of course it is also a question of security because you do not know who is behind this veil."

The day after the bill was passed was Bastille Day, France's national holiday, celebrating the 1789 revolution and French unity.

In a courtyard in the Paris suburb of St. Denis, M'Hammed Henniche and his colleagues from the Union of Muslim Associations debate the new law as they sip their mint tea. They said far from unifying France, the law is in danger of alienating the country's five-million Muslims.

"Islam is part of French culture, part of French society, but a certain section of the political class is denying this fact," Henniche said. "They want to create a clash within French society and to do that, they are waving this red flag of the Islamic veil."

Since riots in 2005, the government has had an uneasy relationship with the largely Muslim residents of Paris's northeastern suburbs.

The demonstrators claimed they were being unfairly treated by the police. And if the bill to ban face-covering veil becomes the law in France, it is likely to antagonize the millions of Muslims living in the Paris suburbs and further afield.

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